Syracuse Schools: Poster Child For Failure, Yet Again

Awhile back I wrote about a talk that educator Jerry Grant gave in Syracuse, about his book “Hope And Despair In The American City.” The book studied segregation and poor performance in school districts in America. Syracuse was the poster child for the “Despair” section.

In this weekend’s NYT magazine is a story titled “Building A Better Teacher”, a profile of the attempts made by educator Doug Lemov of Troy, NY to help improve actual teaching skills in America’s schools. Mr. Lemov had a history of being an effective teacher, principal and charter school developer–and has become a consultant helping troubled schools turn themselves around.

Apparently, his Eureka! moment came while visiting a Syracuse school and saw what he called “a dispiriting exercise in good people failing.” Acccording to Lemov, the problems weren’t obvious to the naked eye. The school seemed to be doing what troubled schools are supposed to do:

the teachers seemed to care about their students. They sat down with them on the floor to read and picked activities that should have engaged them. The classes were small. The school had rigorous academic standards and state-of-the-art curriculums and used a software program to analyze test results for each student, pinpointing which skills she still needed to work on.

The main problem identified by Lemov was the competence of the actual teaching:

. . when it came to actual teaching, the daily task of getting students to learn, the school floundered. Students disobeyed teachers’ instructions, and class discussions veered away from the lesson plans. In one class Lemov observed, the teacher spent several minutes debating a student about why he didn’t have a pencil. Another divided her students into two groups to practice multiplication together, only to watch them turn to the more interesting work of chatting. A single quiet student soldiered on with the problems.

Studying the data, Lemov is one of many that has concluded that teacher competence is the single most important factor in improving school children’s performance. So he has created what he calls a taxonomy–49 methods of taking control of a classroom and imparting knowledge.

Hopefully, this revolution will get back to the Syracuse schools–where the impetus for the movement started.

3 thoughts on “Syracuse Schools: Poster Child For Failure, Yet Again

  1. I went to a highly regarded suburban high school and was tracked A1 in most subjects, but A2 in a couple others. I saw the exact same thing happening in the A2 classes as is described in the article (the lax discipline, the chatting, etc), so this is not a “city thing,” it’s a negative-feedback loop where indifferent teaching and indifferent students feed on each other. (The only difference probably was the degree of disruption.)


  2. Tracking is a fascinating phenomenon for many different reasons. I was unusual in that I was in the highest tiers of English, foreign languages (I took 3 of ’em!) and social studies, yet I was in the middling to poor tracks for math and sciences. (I had math phobia and psyched myself out of even trying to master the subjects.)

    I went to FM and discovered early on that if you were considered smart you could write your own ticket–the expectations were high, but the hassles were minimal. We were the best and brightest after all, so being late to class occasionally or taking some extra time to really “polish” your homework wasn’t unusual.

    In the lower classes, there were hardly any expectations and hassles were considerable. Sit down, shut up, do as you’re told.


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